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The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse

Last Friday, the team from the Guessing Geisel blog dropped by to discuss some 2017 picture books with possible crossover Geisel and Caldecott appeal. One of the titles was Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Triangle. But today we’re here to discuss Barnett and Klassen’s other 2017 picture book, The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse — probably not of interest to the Geisel committee (Barnett’s text, though not lengthy, employs some pretty sophisticated vocabulary), but hopefully of HUGE interest to the Caldecott.

I’ve been looking at Barnett/Klassen picture books long enough to know that nothing is there by accident; everything has a purpose. To start: take off the paper jacket and see (instead of the title words of the jacket) the imprinted images of a wolf, duck, and mouse, arranged vertically. Then open the book to the title page and see the words WOLF, DUCK, and MOUSE also arranged vertically. That’s cool enough, but now note how your eye follows those words directly down the page from top to bottom, landing finally on the image of the little mouse. We’re already at the beginning of the story — because do you see the tension in that mouse’s body? Something is about to happen, and after the page-turn, on the first spread of the book proper, it does: the mouse meets a wolf. Note the cleanness and simplicity of that meeting (“Early one morning, a mouse / met a wolf…”): mouse on the left page, wolf on the right; their gazes connecting, their noses pointing right at each other. And then turn the page, and the next spread is also clean — and unmistakable: we see only the back half of the wolf, walking off the left page, and the mouse is gone (“…and he was quickly gobbled up”). The next page-turn introduces us to the primary setting of the story:  inside the wolf, “in the belly of the beast.” The complex darkness created by Klassen is really remarkable. There are clearly multiple colors used, but it’s difficult to separate them out; there’s so much texture; the higgledy-piggledy brushstrokes (or, anyway, what look to me like brushstrokes — all we really know about how the art in this book was created is that the illustrations are in mixed-media) convey an unsettled, opposite-of-serene feeling. Perfect for depicting the inside of a wolf’s stomach — especially one with a stomachache.

OK, I will stop going page-by-page to point out every detail! But let’s look at a few things that happen book-wide. Klassen, of course, once again does things with eyes that are pretty much unparalleled in children’s book illustration. In the illustration accompanying the text, “This called for a dance,” both mouse’s and duck’s eyes are closed, and so each animal’s eye is represented only as a line. But look how much expression inhabits those lines. Those two are feeling that music. They are into it. Turn the page, and we see the wolf, suffering mightily from the stomachache caused by all that dancing. Here the eyes transmit, palpably, the animal’s acute discomfort.

Also of note is the unusual, tableau-like nature of the illustrations. They seem to capture each moment’s action at its apex. Klassen paints these moments as if a strobe light suddenly went on and froze the characters mid-movement, mid-sentence. One of my favorite “strobe” moments is the tableau of the two characters’ first feast, with the top-hatted mouse waving a turkey drumstick (??!!) in the air and the top-hatted duck, standing on his about-to-topple-over chair, raising his glass in a rather vigorous toast. “To the health of the wolf!” Another favorite is the post-vanquishing-the-hunter spread, with the two once again dancing with joyful abandonment, this time with the addition of their battle gear (a hockey stick and a tin pot and kitchen colander for helmets). It’s ALLLLLLL energy and emotion, that illustration.

Now I need all of you who know more about art than I do to weigh in. Talk about the colors in this book, please. There might be one or two recognizable colors here — the orange of the tablecloth, of the wolf’s tongue, of the rifle’s firing; the green (is it green?) of the hunter’s hat. And ha! the blush pink of the inside of the mouse’s ears (the same color used for the endpapers). But when the book is closed, do you remember the colors? I don’t. Perhaps the subtlety of the color lets other elements come to the fore: that aforementioned energy and emotion.

(I also would love to hear others’ thoughts on the differing depictions of the faces of the wolf versus the duck and the mouse. Note that the wolf’s eyes are always on the same side of his head, Picasso-style. But the duck and mouse: no. What’s that about?)

Yes, I’m intrigued by this book, and more every time I look at it. Has it also caught the attention of any members of the real committee? Will we have to rename this book The Wolf, the Duck, the Mouse, and the Caldecott? We’ll have to wait and see — though not for much longer…

Your thoughts?


Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse here.

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. The first thoughts I came to mind after my first reading of “The Wolf The Duck & The Mouse” was thinking of how Pinocchio and his band spent their time inside the stomach of the whale. As usual the creative teaming of Barnett and Klassen has come up with yet another marvel idea in taking the implications the Colodi story to a whole new conceit, that of a duck and a mouse finding life inside the fox is a far more interesting proposition than living every day in fear of a predator. The art in places strongly recalls their Caldecott Honor collaboration “Sam and Dave Dig A Hole” (mouse reaching stomach from esophagus same design as underground tunnel in the earlier book a prime example) though is quite a bit artistically to set it aside too. I do much prefer it to “Triangle” which I still like and also find unique and love the final punch line intimating that this a wolf’s howl at the moon is a result of the permanent tenants within him. Kids really love the deceit of the new borders telling the wolf he’ll feel much better if he swallows some beeswax, wine and cheese. While I’m well aware that the Caldecott committee members are urged to forget past wins by an illustrator, I still know this matter is hard for any not to have in the back of their minds. Klassen of course has won a Caldecott and two Honors, with the aforementioned “Sam & Dave” quite recently. When the matter of fierce competition is factored in, it is hard not to see this exceedingly ravishing work failing to make the cut. Yet it is as distinguished as just about any other. The “being swallowed but not being eaten” line is a hoot. i too immediately marveled at the “tableau” like nature of the illustrations. As to the colors I am with you Martha. They are well incorporated and choreographed (and this is a great aspect) that they are not remembered independently. That’s quite a challenging question about the eyes of the wolf on the same side and the others side profiles. I’d opine that in view of the hunter’s eyes also full front, it has to do with the threatening approach of the predator versus the side profiles of vulnerability.

    Anyway, another fabulous qualification essay. If this book were to surprise like “Leave Me Lone” and “Trombone Shorty” did I’d be all smiles.

  2. *typos rampant.* my apologies. “The first thoughts THAT came to mind”; “HAVE come up with another…”OF the Colodi story” and “Leave me ALONE.”

  3. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Sam, thanks so much for bringing up those related stories (Jonah and the Whale, too, of course) and for your cogent comments about the choreographed colors. That’s it exactly.

  4. Martha, thank you kindly for that! This book is one that seems to get better everything it is picked up. Such consummate artistry but two of the very best in the business. i thought when you said THIS: “They seem to capture each moment’s action at its apex. Klassen paints these moments as if a strobe light suddenly went on and froze the characters mid-movement, mid-sentence.” you really captured this book’s artistic essence! Klassen has always been on a level that is mind-boggling.

  5. Frankie Moore says:

    It is the line “I live well! I may have been swallowed, but I have no intention of being eaten” that intrigues me about this book. Barnett and Klassen go so well together: like something spicy and a not too sweet Riesling.

  6. Yes! It’s reshaping the power dynamics with his own enemy. I love it.

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